When planning this trip, we had intended to spend about a month and a half in Australia, and then fly to Thailand to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in mid-April. When we look at the sanctuary’s calendar in January, while we were in New Zealand, they had plenty of availability for the week we wanted. However, just a couple days later when we went to book, the week had filled up. With no volunteer slots available until the end of April, and with the uncomplicated, free Thai visa good for only 30 days, we were forced to stay in Australia for a couple more weeks. While that sounds just lovely, it is a really expensive place to stay, so we couldn’t add a bunch of extra excursions to the budget (unless we wanted to cut the rest of the trip short). So, we decided to rent a car and do some driving from Sydney. The debate was on – should we go north toward Byron Bay and Brisbane, south toward the capital of Canberra, or try to squeeze them both in (it doesn’t look that far on a map, but trust me, the drives are long)? By the end of our week in Sydney, we had decided that heading north would be the best option, as we heard there wasn’t a lot to do in and around Canberra, save for one hike that interested us both.
Funny enough, when we sailed around the Galápagos Islands in 2009, we met two incredibly nice couples from the Brisbane area. Having stayed in touch a bit over the years, Stephan sent an email asking if they’d like to get together, and when they responded affirmatively, we committed to the northward journey up the Pacific Motorway.
With a solid 13 hours ahead of us, we decided to break the trip up into 3 days, so we could do some sightseeing along the way. By the time we’d spent the morning in Sydney, grabbed one last lunch in the city, and battled some horrendous holiday traffic leaving the city (Good Friday is a big deal here), we made it as far as Tinonee. Just a tiny speck on the map, about 50 miles south of the more touristed town of Port Macquarie, Tinonee turned out to be an incredibly lovely place. You know that feeling you get when you are so comfortable and at peace somewhere that everything else melts away? That was Tinonee for me. There was nothing particularly remarkable – just some rolling green countryside and scores of birds chirping in the trees – but I had such a warm feeling during our brief stay there. Our hosts were incredibly friendly as well, and Lance, a kindred spirit, enjoyed feeding the birds that frequented their yard. Masses of lorikeets and crested pigeons swarmed his terracotta seed bowls, while a pair of laughing kookaburra were eager for him to throw down some freshly-cut bologna cubes from the fridge. The animated kookaburras were also keen to go for a swim in the recently-installed in-ground pool, to which he quipped he was ‘glad someone was using.’
At the recommendation of our hosts, we took a short detour a few kilometers up the street to Wingham, to check out a scenic overlook of the Manning River. As we headed into town, we noticed a sign for the Wingham Brush Nature Reserve, and figured we’d take a peek. It turns out the small reserve is an important maternity site for grey-headed flying foxes, a species of megabat now considered vulnerable due to habitat loss, human disturbance, and competition. With a population once in the many millions, current estimates suggest that the total population now hovers around 600,000 individuals. As we followed a beautiful little boardwalk near the river that wound under the tall canopy of rare, subtropical, lowland rainforest, hundreds of flying foxes chirped and squirmed overhead. We also noticed signs along the path warning of encroaching giant stinging trees, which apparently inflict a pretty nasty prick that requires medical attention. We shook our heads thinking that not only do you have to worry about nearly every snake and insect you encounter in Australia, but that even the foliage is out to get you.
We spent our second night with hosts in Tyndale (along with their loving, 14-year old cattle dog mix, Dean) in the spare room of their gorgeous, secluded property along the Clarence River’s Southern Arm. We really enjoyed that both of our overnights were spent quite well off the beaten path – both stays were just so cozy and peaceful. From here we continued north, making an impromptu stop in Tweed Heads for some birdwatching along the Terranora Broadwater. Even though we had missed the peak hours of the early morning, we spotted a significant number of songbirds along the concealed track, tucked back behind a small oyster shop.
Our final stop along the Pacific Highway was at well-known Byron Bay. We knew there would be crowds of beachgoers and throngs of tourists, as it’s an incredibly popular spot, but figured it was a must see while driving by. Indeed, it was quite packed as we headed for the Cape Byron Lighthouse, which is perched atop the easternmost point of mainland Australia, where the Coral and Tasman Seas converge. The views were quite nice, though, dominated by expansive white beaches and gleaming blue waters at the base of the rocky sea cliffs.